Understanding Unequal Access to Thermal Comfort and Safety to Address Urban Climate Justice Challenges

Submitted by Lindsay Cael on
Seattle Parks workers and Police sweep and dismantle a community of improvised shelters in Ballard Commons in December 2021. In the foreground are fuel canisters (for heating, cooking, and electricity) left behind by residents.

In spring 2022, the Department of Geography’s Acting Assistant Professor Sam Kay received a competitive UW EarthLab Innovation Grant.  Dr. Kay is collaborating with geography graduate students Ellie Cleasby and Samantha Thompson; Associate Professor Jessica Kaminsky from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Vivek Shandas, a faculty member from Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning; and with Puget Sound Sage.  With this team, they are bringing expertise in urban sustainability, energy infrastructure, green building, climate justice, community-based participatory research, and more.

The team’s research focuses on climate change, specifically how some of the Seattle area’s least-resourced residents grapple with the challenge of “how to stay dry enough, warm enough, or cool enough to be healthy, comfortable, and alive amid increasing climate and temperature extremes.”  The project aims to extend the reach of existing energy assistance and weatherization programs by reducing barriers to seeking and receiving assistance. It also seeks to identify ways in which society could better address unmet thermal safety needs, including by learning from the innovations of residents themselves.

Dr. Kay shares some insights below about this grant and important takeaways as the project progresses.

Q: What made you interested in this line of research?

Sam Kay: Thermal comfort and safety are absolutely fundamental to people’s happiness, welfare, and dignity. The entire world is going to be facing more frequent, sustained, and extreme temperature events in the coming years and decades, and regions such as the Pacific Northwest which have historically enjoyed more temperate weather in the past are among the least prepared to face these emerging challenges. Even with the wider recognition of this problem that has accompanied the unusually hot, cold, and/or smoky conditions we’ve been experiencing over the past few years, the full impacts are still hard to see. The Washington State Department of Health, for instance, reports that there were 157 heat-related deaths in the state between June 26 and July 31, 2021. But during that same period, there were hundreds of additional deaths beyond what would be expected, even accounting for Covid. Many of the conditions for which heat can be a factor in bringing about premature death (while not necessarily being classified officially as a “heat-related death”) are cardiovascular or respiratory, which would likewise be exacerbated by factors such as the pandemic and the periods of unhealthy air pollution resulting from wildfire smoke, which is also on the rise due to climate change.

Q: What have you learned so far in the course of this project?

SK: One encouraging thing has been to see the extent to which local and state-level agencies are already starting to act on some of these issues. Washington’s Department of Commerce is one of the earliest among its peers nationwide to begin to rigorously think through energy assistance as a climate justice issue. King County and the State of Washington are also leading jurisdictions when it comes to policy experiments that link temperature and indoor air quality in a comprehensive manner through things like weatherization programs. All of this progress has come from years of sustained movement work and activism, such as from project collaborators Puget Sound Sage whose efforts have been felt at both the state and local levels. The Department of Commerce is able to do what it’s doing on energy affordability in part because of the work that the climate justice movement put into shaping and passing Washington’s 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act. Activism has also been instrumental at the local level in pushing for the Green New Deal Oversight Board.

At the same time, as good as these programs are, they have limitations, in terms of both reach and scope.

On the question of reach, we’re finding that it is very difficult to give a precise answer to a seemingly straightforward question such as: “what percentage of households in the County and State qualify to receive energy assistance but aren’t receiving any.” It’s not yet possible to put a rigorous number to the size of this uptake gap, but preliminary discussions with utilities and public agencies suggest that far the programs are reaching far fewer than half of eligible households. That’s just not good enough.

On the question of scope, we know that there are significant community thermal comfort and safety needs that don’t fall anywhere within the purview of existing programs. Energy assistance, for instance, relies on people having utility hookups, and therefore aren’t currently reaching people living in tents, vehicles, and other improvised shelter. All of those things also require energy to heat and cool, it’s just not coming from a utility. So not only are existing programs not reaching many eligible households, their scope does not even include many people with the greatest thermal safety needs.

Q: What are your next steps?

SK: To answer the reach question, we’re still very much at the stage of trying to get access to enough data to be able to give rigorous answers to even basic questions about the size of the energy assistance uptake gap, and patterns within the gap that could point the way to closing it and increasing equity. While there are a lot of data sources out there, and folks at the Department of Commerce are working quite hard to analyze what they have and make it publicly accessible, lots of key pieces of the data puzzle are held separately by different agencies and utilities. What we need from the 2020 census, for instance, hasn’t yet been released. We’re still working with the relevant agencies to try to get access to data, and at the same time, we’re looking for alternate intellectually rigorous ways of finding answers to our research questions.

To answer the scope question, we’re likewise in the early stages of informal outreach to low-income, unhoused, and other marginalized communities. Through preliminary fieldwork, we’ve begun to identify some barriers to why policy initiatives like the city’s cooling shelters aren’t reaching as many people as hoped. But we know that people are out there being creative and finding ways of meeting, or trying to meet, their own thermal comfort and safety needs, and we want to reach them to learn from their experiences and highlight their innovations. Our hope is to hold some co-design and co-learning sessions in the next few months.

Q: What do you want people to know about this topic?

SK: Society has some tools already in place to address thermal comfort and safety needs, but they don’t seem to be comprehensive enough or have wide enough reach to prevent some really terrible outcomes (up to and including premature death). People are doing their best to stay comfortable and safe through really difficult circumstances, but these are not problems that can be solved by individuals on their own; these are society-level challenges that need to be met with collective will and effort and demand comprehensive policy responses.

To state the obvious, housing and shelter are also hugely important here and Seattle’s housing affordability crisis is a major contributor to climate injustice and racial disparities in access to thermal comfort and safety. We rely on these spaces for our basic safety and survival, but they are out of reach for many in the state. It takes a Washingtonian in a minimum-wage job 72 hours a week (1.8 full time jobs) to afford a 1-bedroom market rate apartment. Yet as significant numbers of people are priced out of formal housing altogether, the City of Seattle has continued to spend millions of dollars aggressively sweeping encampments, even during periods of unsafe heat, cold, and smoke.

While it’s important to ask deeper questions (and basic questions) that can guide policy and address emerging challenges like those from extreme temperature events, there’s no need to wait for the findings of this research project or any other research to start to take action that keeps more of our neighbors safe and alive. One of the best ways to start addressing these issues the moment you finish reading this sentence is to find a mutual aid group that works in your area. Seattle is home to many mutual aid groups, and they are all in constant need of funding, time, and materials. Groups like FreeFoodUD and SubvertUD work merely blocks from campus for any UW students, staff, or faculty who want to get involved.

Students may also wish to explore opportunities for experiential learning and volunteering associated with UW’s hosting of Tent City 3.

Find details about all of the EarthLab Innovation Grant funded projects on the EarthLab website.